At the end of every month, Google helpfully sends me a summary of its surveillance of me and my movements, in the form of its timeline. Usually, this update elicits a mix of self-satisfaction and concern: “Hey look at how cool and active a person you are, as evidenced by all the interesting places you’ve gone to, the things you’ve done, and the distance you’ve covered, which we know all about thanks to our pervasive and insidious scrutiny of you as a subject-consumer with zero privacy under neo-liberal surveillance capitalism!”
I usually set aside the sinister bits and (well-indoctrinated) take this update as intended: the timeline tells me what I want to hear about myself, that I’m a privileged, autonomous person whose intentionality and desire finds embodied realization in relatively-unimpeded movement through physical and social space.
Which means that, normally, my days are punctuated by a lot of roaming around – I walk, bicycle, run, hike, and travel by planes, trains, and automobiles, from one geographical point to the next.
It has often been the case that I haven’t felt especially, mindfully, grateful for that roaming – much of the day-to-day movement has felt hectic, pressured, the exigency to get to whatever’s next. Either I’m careening through the city to satisfy the obligations that keep me out of trouble (the job), or struggling to get to the things that help me cope with meeting those obligations (therapy for body and mind, the gym), or, with the least time of all, rushing to whatever’s supposed to reward me for meeting the obligations (everything else) …Every so often it will occur to me that all that privileged, autonomous movement is really part of a Foucauldian practice of bodily discipline that serves the interests of oppressive state power, and all my freedom is in fact an illusionary byproduct of the panopticon.
One has the luxury to self-indulgently reflect on the limits of one’s liberty when one is confined to quarters in a quarantine.
I don’t know how expansive my world really was under usual, or “normal” circumstances (when do we get to stop putting “normal” in problematizing quotation marks?), but I liked the illusion, that all that literal distance travelled translated figuratively into forward movement, growth, progress toward becoming…something more, or, failing on the becoming, then at least performing the movement of Productivity that has come to matter so much as a measure of adult success.
…And then the pandemic came along, and with it a quarantine, and my world, which may or may not have been nearly boundless Before, has undeniably, suddenly shrunk. Whatever mattered, whatever the matter was, has folded in on itself, contracting into density, exerting a crushing gravity. My little apartment has now become a singularity.
My timeline for April was not usual or normal. I hardly went any more than 3 miles in any direction in April. I didn’t leave the house for 16 days out of 30. All of a sudden, I didn’t go anywhere at all.
What happens to our figurative forward movement when we literally can’t move?
I miss going to therapy. I mean, I’m still “going” to therapy, but in the same ways that I still “go” to dance class (my kitchen), and “go” for a drink with my friends (my living room), I “go” to “meet” my therapist by phone (my bed). I miss being able to actually go to see her, insofar as the action, the verb, entailed a change of position, a change of state. I would walk there, exchanging my office for hers; the transit through the city was a transition of mood, thought, identity. I would wait for my appointment in that most liminal states, the waiting room, the hallway. Being called into her office was to be invited across a threshold. I would set down my bags (always more than one, the things I carried always weighing me down with symbolic expectation, and reproach – what I would have to endure in a day, what I would aspire to do, what I couldn’t manage to do, all hanging penitentially from my shoulders). I’d take off my shoes, pull up my feet, and curl up in a corner of her couch, the appearance of coziness a cover for the need to have solid furniture to brace myself against. She would take a deep breath and ask: “where shall we begin?” And I would press my back into her therapy cushion, press my hands down on my knees, and talk.
Going to therapy meant crossing a barrier, from the demands and threats of the world, into a space that is recognizably domestic, and yet free of the domestic baggage that we go there to unburden ourselves of – a place that is designed to be separate, special, safe.
I hadn’t really given much thought to how vital it is for us, to have these separate, special places, until the possibility of going to any of them was so brutally put on hold.
“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone….”
Now my apartment is being pressed into performing service it wasn’t really designed for – as office, conference room, library, bar, gym, doctor’s office, cafe, therapist’s couch, ballet studio. My little converted attic is not prepared for this work in a physical, material sense – the lighting is always all wrong, the ceilings too low, the floor too hard, the rooms too cluttered. My quarantine and I delicately herd one another from one room to the next: “if you’re finished watching TV, I thought I’d do a workout…if you’re going to be on zoom in there, do you mind if I take over the bedroom? … Let me know when you’re done in the kitchen so that I can dance/cook/carve/plant….”
What’s troublesome is that this space is not meant to be those spaces; the goals, the ambitions, the responsibilities, the pleasures, and the many, many anxieties that would take me out of my home are not meant to be replicated in it. I would go there because I had to, for obligations of course, but also for the specialized equipment, the expertise of others, the freedom from distraction. We value our home because here is where we can be ourselves…and that’s why we need to be able to leave, to go there, where we can practice being some other version of ourselves, sometimes a version we might not like all that much, but sometimes also an experimental version, a necessary prototype, that requires room for ungainly, uncoordinated test-runs, the occasional explosive failure. You don’t want that thing going off in your living room.
When the rest of the world is all hectic movement and necessarily expended energy, we need our homes to be places of calm and rest…but the same stillness that makes home a refuge under “normal” conditions resists, discourages, the introduction of that worldly bustle and drive. The conflict of dynamic and static creates confusion, tension, discord.
Not only were those other places made special simply because there was not here – but the act of going had a symbolic, ritualistic function, where literally moving from one place to another meant figuratively changing roles, relationships, mindsets. Not moving from here, confronted with my own image blinking and fidgeting back at me from the camera of my computer, I miss that change of state, of identity, of being somewhere else, of being someone else.
Maybe we need the permission afforded by another place: change the stage, change the props, change the persona.
I’d come to take for granted the absolute necessity of self-improvement, self-actualization, self-acceptance…and it turns out that a lot of that work on accepting the self depended on being able to put that self through its paces, through all manner of changes, multiple times per day. That takes up a lot of space.
My little apartment has been reluctantly transformed into a Room of Requirement, and I can tell the effort is straining the structural tolerances.
And yet – even as my home trembles and strains under the psychic weight of being all places, all roles, at once…it has to hold together, because there is still nowhere else (nowhere safer) to go. Even as it seems almost impossible to stay put, to make do, we’re getting used to it — accommodating, finding ways to make the small space seem spacious enough. Or maybe we’re accommodating ourselves to moving less, taking up less space, limiting how much we move, or act, or change to fit into an ever smaller area, one that contains fewer stimuli, and certainly fewer people.
Is that adaptation, or is that a traumatic response to captivity? I’m getting used to a quieter life not out of some mindful, patient, acceptance but rather as a kind of quarantine-induced Stockholm syndrome.
Rather than call it a quarantine, or a lock-down, or even a shelter-in-place, some people prefer “The Great Pause.” Meanwhile, the French call it le confinement.
We won’t know for sure what effect quarantine life is having on us until we don’t have to live in it anymore. And while others are getting excited about “opening back up! going back to business as usual! resuming normal life!” …I don’t feel ready. Do you? Can you imagine going back to “normal” – going back to all that hectic movement back and forth, coming and going, Productively progressing, but also pressing, fighting our way from one point in space to the next….? Can you imagine all that movement, alongside other people….?
There is so much that I miss – that we all miss – about life Before, so much that we’ve been deprived of, that has been put on hold. In the last couple of months, we’ve only been able to reminisce, or fantasize: “As soon as things go back to normal the first thing I’m going to do is [insert desired activity performed in public space, with other people].” I wonder what we’ll really want, or need, to do, and with whom? (or for whom?) How much will the quarantine have changed our priorities? How much will our desire, our ambition, our need for movement have contracted during the last couple of months? To what extent will we find that – even in the midst of confinement – our desires have expanded, but into spaces that are quieter, full of less motion, fewer people?
Much might be gone for good.
That is: that so much might be gone, might be good, might be good for us.
(is this an overly-grand claim? what’s the alternative?)
…maybe it will turn out that having gone nowhere, we’ve actually gone quite far.